Hotdogs and Mallets: The Eugene Bike Polo Club

For years the words “Bike Polo” have elicited, in my silly little noggin, some sort of barbaric mosh pit of hardcore/anarchist/fixie-skidding/male-presenting jousters, bloody-fresh shinners and maybe getting whacked by one of those croquette things being swung around like a Morgenstern circa 1490. A fight to the death on bikes. I grew up dancing ballet and racing BMX, forging me timid of sports balls and physical contact sports, in general. I had this unfounded bias that bike polo was too edgy and savage; like something I’d not ever try because of my aversion to sports where another human might hit you with a ball, a mallet, or heaven forbid, their own sweaty soul-sack. I imagined a lot of brute force and all-out thrashing: Steel bike frames colliding in explosive fashion inside of a cartoon fight cloud, mallets and balls flying from all directions, and me in the center with time standing still, going full-on Neo (The Matrix, 1999 film) from the saddle in an act of self-preservation.

I was wrong.

Allow me to introduce you all to Eugene Bike Polo, a club based in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. These cats, let me tell you what! They do not fight each other with those croquette things or wrastle to the death, nah – they dance. The group feels like a chosen family of bike nerds gathering on Thursday nights to gracefully move a small orange ball around a tennis court in a seemingly choreographed symphony of humans on bicycles with mallets in hand. They’re gorgeous. Maybe a few punk rock, fixie-skidding, male-presenting folks, yeah. A far cry from the aforementioned morning star-wielding barbarians, though. Eugene Bike Polo is a sweet little community with a common interest: play the game, have some fun and grow the sport. It feels welcoming because it is. You need six to play, so the more people you have showing up and the more you facilitate learning and proficiency at the sport, the more likely (and fun) pick-up games become.

My pal Will Gurney plays with the club, which got me itching to go see what this bike polo jam is all about. Will welcomed me to a Thursday night pick-up game at the Washington Park Tennis Courts in Eugene. I was nervous about showing up as a curious and extra-soft outsider, but it only took witnessing a few of the exchanges in the group’s chat to shine light on how much they care for each other. There was lots of talk about who was bringing hotdogs and assurance they’d grabbed the vegan dogs, too. I found solace in the simple love language of communion via food and knew I was about to observe something more than a sport.

Bike Polo is a relatively easy-to-understand game, traditionally played with two teams of 3 players known as 3v3 and typically lasting 10-15 minutes per game. Squad teams consist of 4-6 players and games last 30-40 minutes. Squad is a smaller, updated version of the 7-12 player teams with longer 60-90 minute long games, formerly known as Bench. The game is played on a hard surface court with goals at either end and 3 players from each team on the court at once. To begin, teams line up with rear tires touching the wall at each end of the court with a ball placed on the center line. One player from each team, known as a jouster, sprints toward the ball upon the referee’s whistle or someone yelling “Polo!” Once possession of the ball is established, the other players may accelerate onto the court and the game is on. The objective is to score by shooting the ball into the opposing goal. Goals only count if made by a “shot,” which means hitting the ball with either end of the mallet head rather than a “shuffle” using the broad side of the mallet or a “scoop” or throw of the ball using the mallet’s open end. After a goal is scored, the scoring team returns to their half of the court and once returned, the scored-upon team may begin crossing the half line for the next play. A dab is when a player touches a horizontal surface like the ground or the top of the goal with a foot or hand. If anything other than bike and mallet are used to maintain balance, that’s a dab. A player who dabbed must “tap in” again by hitting the boards at mid-court with their mallet before they can touch the ball.

It’s considered a foul to carry momentum into another player’s body or bike. Incidental bike-on-bike or body-to-body contact is a normal part of the game, but players aren’t allowed to run into each other with force or interfere with another’s ability to play the game. Players must be responsible for their bikes, bodies, and mallets at all times. Aside from wind-ups and follow-throughs while shooting the ball, mallets should be kept below handlebar level. You can’t slash others’ mallets or jam their wheels. There is a whole-ass book of actual rules, but those are the basics of what’s going down on the court. Unique local or regional rules exist in some clubs or cities and there are official tournament rules set forth by the North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Association.

Any bike can be a polo bike, really. Much like any faction of bicycling, you can very likely do it on any bike, and it’s also possible that there is a reason (beyond dirty ole capitalism) that specific and higher-quality goods come into existence. I believe that reason is a desire to enjoy the thing you’re doing to the fullest and that having gear that is comfortable to your body and designed to help you do the thing well facilitates one’s ability to truly benefit on a personal level from an activity. Most polo bikes are lower gear ratio single-speeds with a front brake, providing the advantage of quick acceleration and agility on the court. Plenty of folks use fixed-gear bikes, too. Wheel covers made from corrugated plastic, thick fabric, plastic netting, and other recycled materials are used as ball-blocking surfaces and to protect spokes. They also make rad canvases for creative expression.

The DIY spirit is alive and well in bike polo communities – folks often make their own mallets and each bike seems to have a crap-ton of personality and customization. Full fingered hockey gloves are a smart way to keep from losing a pinky nail to a mallet pole slide n’ smash incident. While more bike polo-specific gear is available these days from brands like Enforcer Bikes and Ben’s Cycle, subversive resourcefulness remains a defining detail of the culture. Local clubs often have loaner bikes and mallets available to the polo-curious so they can try the sport out before investing in their own bikes and gear – this type of welcoming support for new players is a must to keep the community populated enough to play. Naturally, deeper community connection is born through the kind acts of facilitating and supporting new players. I think this is the root of what makes the bike polo scene a special space.

I caught up with a few of the club’s members to dig deeper on what Eugene Bike Polo means to them. Jason Dunsmore – one of the club’s longest standing members – discovered bike polo in 2009 and has been playing ever since. He says what he loves most is the people, community and camaraderie and that bike polo has completely affected his life since finding it. It was love at first sight for Jason, who’s been pedaling bikes since he was a wee babe. With most of his bike background being BMX, he later got into building up and riding anything that he could go fast on – fixies, single speed commuters, MTBs, etc. and found that polo was “one more cool thing to do on bikes.”

Jason had seen the club dwindle down to just 2 members for many years. They’d travel to Portland on the weekends for pick-up games and would have to host a tournament if they wanted people to play with in Eugene. “The best thing about Eugene Bike Polo right now is that we have a decent size club of new and veteran players with various skill levels. Change is always happening, but right now I like bike polo the way it is. The stoke is high across the world and I love it.” Jason shared a saying that most bike polo players are familiar with that sum up his relationship with the sport. He had a Koozie adorned with the words “Bike Polo Saved My Life” on one side and “Bike Polo Ruined My Life” on the other. Jason says those words are very meaningful to him and still ring true today. Y’all should also know I saw Jason eat a hotdog with a deviled egg on it. Pro move.

Peanut, the club’s official mascot and tiny Chiuaweenie ride-or-die best friend of Jason, introduced me to Ari Saliba. She’s only been playing for a few months and got into it by watching her friends make it look real fun. “I was extremely intimidated at first and it took me months to even try it. My friend Keara was a real motivator. It helped having another femme identifying person playing and giving me pointers.” Ari grew up riding bikes in Valley Center, CA, mostly doing gravel XC rides with her dad in the hills of SoCal and took up urban riding when she moved to Eugene at 17 years old. She commuted exclusively by bike for years which led to alley cats, longer miles and eventually, finding her favorite kind of ass-in-saddle fun to be bikepacking. Bike polo is comin’ in hot to swoop up the title of Ari’s favorite biking activity, though. In her words, “Eugene Bike Polo is special; the people are so supportive. I probably would not have started if it wasn’t for the amazing people in the club. They have been patient with me as I’ve learned, have taught me new skills, and have become some of my favorite people.

It doesn’t feel overly competitive and is always welcoming to new players. The lighthearted nature of the club is also a plus. It feels like pick-up is just a fun playdate with friends.” Her favorite thing about bike polo is the focus it requires. “I’m always having to think 3 steps ahead and I love that challenge.” She says the bike control and maneuvering skills are incredibly satisfying to hone and that you can always learn new moves, so it never becomes a bore. “It has generally made me much more confident on a bike.” Ari shared that polo has helped her in other ways in life, too. She’s more willing to try new things, especially if physically challenging. It’s made her less embarrassed about being new at something because she sees how quickly you can become okay at it just by practicing a little. “People should know that it is insanely fun! And it is worth trying out, especially if you love bikes. And that it is for EVERYONE.”

Another dedicated and skilled player, Kody estimates he’s spent something like 1900 hours playing or waiting to play bike polo over the last 8 years. He found bike polo through volunteering at a spot called Main Street Bike Co-op that hosted after hours pick-up games at a court a block away from the shop. Something Kody loves about bike polo, in general, is the uniqueness of the sport. He appreciates using bikes as a tool, the particular difficulty and spatial awareness involved with hitting a ball exactly where you want it to go. “It’s challenging and that’s what makes pulling off a good play so rewarding. We’ve got a good mix of players, skill levels, backgrounds, and the stoke is high. There can be drama in some clubs, but we are all pretty chill and caring.”

Kody’s worst polo wound has been a broken rib and aside from minor injuries, he says that polo is net positive for his health. He feels like “there is a reputation for it being a rough sport, and while it is competitive, it’s really a sport of finesse and strategy. Contact is more for protection from bikes being entangled. Like a lot of other emerging sports, bike polo is extremely inclusive. Some clubs might seem intimidating but as soon as you show interest in bike polo, it won’t be long until you’re being handed a mallet and bike. The cool thing about it being so new is the rules aren’t set in stone, and new rules are proposed, refined, and voted on by players to shape the game in a positive direction.” Kody encourages “If you like bikes you should try it out! Clubs are always looking for more people to play with.”

Weston, born and raised in Eugene, first got on the court in 2020 down in Austin, TX where he was living and working as a bike messenger. He joined a group ride that went by a pick-up game of polo. “I was blown away by the guys doing endos and crazy wheelie turns. It only took a week before I jumped on a bike and never stopped trying to better my game.” He says growing up riding BMX and getting into fixies in his teens has exponentially benefitted his polo skills and ability to be comfortable on a bike. What Weston really digs most about bike polo is how diverse the community is, on and off the court. “Eugene has just started to bloom back up and I think our group has a great variety of different skill levels, from beginners to folks who have been playing for 5+ years.” He prefers ketchup only on his hotdogs, for the record.

Witnessing how this group of folks bond over chasing a ball around a tennis court on bicycles was simple and good. Funny how something I thought of as aggressive or too masculine is actually quite graceful and requires tapping into feminine energy. Nuanced, mindful, deliberate actions based in finesse and thoughtfulness. It was rad to notice the platonic love present in the way they prepared hotdogs together and nurtured each other with conversation about the week and work and bike set-up. Tools were shared and mallets repaired on the spot, the air buzzing with carpool plans for the weekend tournament in Portland. My little heart smiled big the whole way home.

What a beautiful irony that bike polo is more like ballet dancing than it is a fight. Heck, you might even cop yourself a vegan dog if you show up on the right Thursday. If you have any interest in bike polo, I encourage you to check out your local club or a club nearby. You can follow @eugene_bikepolo to see what these kind, hotdog-slayin’ beasts are up to and if you’re in the area I highly recommend you go catch a game – it’s way fun to spectate upon.